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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 11 November, 2019
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Column: Centra’s gaffe isn’t the real problem here – our welfare system is

It’s not news that some benefits are spent on alcohol, writes Aaron McKenna. Time for a simple change to the system.

Aaron McKenna

THERE ARE TRUTHS that we know to be self evident, yet persist in being outwardly shocked and surprised about.

Politicians tend to be corrupt. Bankers tend to be idiots. (And vice versa). And a fair enough proportion of social welfare gets spent on booze that retailers make sure to have their shelves stocked in time for red letter days, like the one that children’s allowance is disbursed.

This week brought a moral backlash against Centra for the promotional offers that coincided with that particular red letter day. We have seen an ongoing war on the vast majority of people who spend their welfare payments in a manner above reproach, and on the majority of us who enjoy alcohol sensibly. What we haven’t seen is very much of a focus on the delinquent individuals who spend money meant for children on alcohol, cigarettes and other afflictions.

The truth that such people exist is self evident, but as per usual it is everyone and everything else to blame without grasping the nettle.

If there isn’t already such a thing as an award for marketeers who inadvertently explode their simple little business onto the national stage for all the wrong reasons, it ought to be invented and given to the Centra franchise that decided combining alcohol, children and welfare on the one promotional leaflet would be a good idea.

We can all agree that advertising alcohol on a leaflet aimed at a social welfare day was in bad taste. But in so doing the Centra franchise at the heart of the matter was simply being a rational economic actor: If sales of a particular product spike around a specific event, stock up and put your best foot forward.

‘If there’s a heatwave, stock ice’

If there’s a hurricane coming, get batteries and flashlights. If there’s a heatwave, stock ice. And once a month, every month, stock up on nappies and booze. It’s such an open secret among retailers that its not a secret at all; that excluding holidays and special events the single most regular spike in alcohol sales comes on children’s allowance day.

That’s not Centra’s fault. Nor is it the fault of the great many recipients of the allowance who put it to the use it is intended. Neither is it the fault of the people too rich to actually need it, but who receive it anyway because our government is too inept to means test.

It is the fault of the individuals who make a conscious decision to go in and spend that cash on alcohol. The retailer can, in aggregate, see what sells particularly well on a particular day and make a judgement as to why it happened. They cannot, however, judge the provenience of the cash handed in by one consumer from another. Nor is it their role.

The government is ever fond of acting as an interfering nanny to us all, except it seems in controlling how welfare payments are spent. Welfare is, after all, designed with a specific purpose of ensuring nobody on this island should ever starve or go cold. This is an end that has very little to do with alcohol, cigarettes or trips abroad.

‘We shouldn’t be making it easy’

A great many people receiving welfare payments put it to good use. But the government could easily stamp out, or make more difficult, the misuse of hard earned money if it started issuing welfare payments on debit cards with certain restrictions.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable, for example, to expect that not a single red cent of children’s allowance be spent on beer or cigarettes. For sure there are those who could get around such a system by timing their shopping, but such individuals are likely to abuse any system to ensure they can sate whatever addictions they have. What we shouldn’t be doing is be making it easy for them.

We really do need to have a proper discussion in Ireland on what welfare is really meant for. There are those who believe that people should simply be handed cash, as today, and do with it as they please. On the other side, there are many fools who believe that life on welfare is lavish and misspent by most – a truth most evidently not true.

But in the middle I suspect are a great many people frustrated to see some – even a euro is too much – of what limited treasure we have to go round being squandered and added to the profits of Diageo, Philip Morris or the Westies.

Welfare is not free money to do whatever one likes with. It has a purpose, and achieving that end should be the goal of the disbursement method used to hand it out.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie >

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